Hostile work environment: four steps to eliminate

Lots of workplaces have their share of hostility, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they qualify as hostile work environments.

That person you beat out for a coveted promotion may have hostile feelings toward you. Or you may wish ill upon the coworker who constantly takes credit for others’ work. Subordinates may fundamentally disagree with the direction you’re taking the company. All can smack of workplace hostility. None indicate a hostile work environment.

To meet the legal definition of a hostile work environment — and thereby be actionable under discrimination laws — the behavior must have some basis in discrimination: race, age, gender, disability, religion, national origin, etc. In addition, there must be a pattern of abusive and degrading conduct that is sufficient to interfere with an employee’s work or create an offensive and hostile environment.

Generally, a few isolated offensive acts will not rise to the level of creating a hostile environment unless sufficiently severe.

If employees make lewd comments about co-workers of the opposite sex, mischievously move objects so as to trip a blind employee or forward racially charged jokes through the office e-mail, you have a hostile work environment.

Whether it’s garden variety hostility or a truly hostile environment, employers are wise to nip it at the outset — if not to avoid lawsuits, then at least to retain valued employees. Many companies over the years have lost valuable employees who weren’t necessarily the target of hostility but who did not like the culture.

Whatever the case, these steps can help you keep hostility out of your workplace vernacular:

  • Listen. When you become aware of problems, listen to the person making the complaint. Whether or not the behavior violates the law is in the eye of the beholder, so be aware that sensitivity to offensive behaviors vary. Avoid any temptation to jump to conclusions. The more facts you have up front, the more thoroughly you can investigate to determine the extent of any problems (and your liability).
  • Don’t ignore it. Investigate to see if a problem really does exist. While not everyone who reports a problem has a valid complaint, inaction will only perpetuate problems that do exist, along with perceptions that management just doesn’t care. If your investigation reveals the employee indeed faces a hostile work environment, you have some discretion about how to handle the issue. The key is to be sure you handle it.
  • Terminate the problem, not the victim. Oftentimes, when an employee makes a complaint, employers will simply decide it’s time to get rid of the protesting employee or that it is easier to do so than to deal with the issue. That may seem the simplest solution — until the employee files a retaliation claim. Retaliation claims can follow even in cases where the workplace environment is otherwise fine, costing employers damages, back pay, attorneys fees and other costs that could have been avoided.
  • Avoid hostility in the first place. It all begins with creating a culture of respect: between employee and employee, among coworkers, from employees to customers, and so on. Develop a written policy that prohibits harassment of any kind, communicate expectations to employees and train supervisors to recognize problems quickly when they do arise. As always, the best advice is to model the behavior you hope to see among employees; show the same respect for employees you hope to see from them.

Reprinted with permission from the River Valley Business Report, March 2010.

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